I turned 30 years old today, XXX in Roman Numerals!
Now that I’m 30 I’ve decided to put myself out to pasture. I jest, of course. I’m not ready to retire, I’m just getting started.
All this month as I’ve been thinking about turning 30, I’ve been thinking about the past 10 years. December in the desert brings frosty air, the heady smoke of juniper burning in nearby fireplaces, and the pungent smells of cinnamon and ginger. All these things recall many winters past.
When it’s cold I can’t help but think about the two years I spent in Russia as a Mormon missionary, two years that I do not regret, but two years that I would not do over again, knowing what I know now.
Oh, to be a young man in Russia!
In summer I sat on the banks of the mighty Volga River under the cooling shade of birch trees; in spring I picked strawberries and tomatoes in rural datchas; year round I traveled by train across a land rich with history and myth. But winter in Russia is brutal. Darkness swallows the cities and freezes solid the river and chills your cells. Days could go by without ever seeing the sun, yet even during the darkest, loneliest moments, I knew things would change.
For two years in Russia, my life journey crossed paths with people who were so different from me and so much the same. The poverty and hopelessness I saw stung me to my core. The arrogance of my youth began to ebb as I realized at 19- years-old that I didn’t know everything and that the world was much bigger and more complicated than my working-class, suburban life in Mesa, Arizona had allowed me to see. Solving the economic turmoil of the small Russian towns I lived in was outside my purview, but at that time I believed the Church had the means to save the people I met if they could only adopt the theology of my world. Why wouldn’t they just listen?
When I turned 8 I began keeping a journal, a habit I kept for most of my youth. Some years I wrote daily. During my high school years I wrote a few entries a month. In some ways my routine of record keeping and my desire to remember stories was the impetus for this blog. Mormons are great at keeping records. I thank my Mormon upbringing for teaching me how to do that.
I turned 20-years-old ten years ago today. On a snowy winter night in Samara, Russia I wrote this in my journal:
Dec. 28, 2001 (Friday)
I had the best birthday! I’m 20! I got up and had cake. Elder McGary gave me a CD case. I cleaned up the apartment a little then we left for our service project. It was so cool! I mentioned last week that today was my birthday. So I walked in the room and balloons were all over, they had a cake and they sang to me in English. Then the students gave me a book about Samara and a matrioshka doll. It was a very tender moment. I felt so lucky. We all talked for a little after our English lesson, we said our goodbyes (after we took some pictures) then Elder McGary and I left.
Elder McGary and I contacted on the street after we got home and taught some great discussions. We didn’t get any addresses though. I lost my name tag, too. Now, I have only the broken one that I have to tape to my shirt. Great. I ordered new ones and they should arrive soon though.
We went to the park to meet Elders Turner and Zogg because we were going to go out for lunch but something came up and they couldn’t make it, so Elder McGary and I went to McDonald’s ourselves. Ded Moroz [Grandpa Frost] and Snegurochka [the Snow Maiden] were there. [In Russian fairy tales and the Christmas tradition, Grandpa Frost is like Santa, and the Snow Maiden is his helper.] They came over to talk to us and it turned out she spoke English. They asked us to sing them a Christmas song in English so we sang “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” right in the middle of the McDonald’s.
After lunch we went to meet Aleksandr to teach the first discussion. He’s awesome. We need to work with him more though to help him overcome his concerns. Then we headed over to the Kozminin’s house because we were meeting for a discussion there with Andre. He’ll get baptized soon, I know it, he’s so cool. We taught the 5th discussion with Elder Kozminin. After the lesson, Elder Kozminin pulled me aside and gave me a card and a present, a little Russian souvenir, then he leaned in and whispered, “You’re a great missionary.” I’m so blessed to be here.
I’ll never forget my 20th birthday in Samara, Russia.
I recognize some characteristics of that 20-year-old boy, others I don’t. Had someone told me then, that by the time I was 30 I would have come out of the closet, officially left the Church, become an outspoken LGBT activist who drank coffee and whiskey, I’d have scoffed at the idea of living such a ridiculous, frightening, sinful life. I had the truth, the way, the power, so why, or how could I abandon it?
The thing is from the time I turned 20 until now, I never abandoned truth, I discovered further light and knowledge. I came to realize I didn’t know everything, that learning things in depth led to great heights, that I did have power inside me but it wasn’t given to me by any organization, it was within me and everyone by virtue of being alive, and that no person nor organization could take it from me.
Over the past 10 years the guilt and the self-doubt I felt my entire life began to melt from me the same way the snow melted in Samara when the sun broke through the darkness in spring.
The 20s are a difficult decade because you are stuck somewhere between a child and a conscience adult. I grew and changed in more ways than I could have imagined. I’d be ashamed if I hadn’t. Now that I’m 30 I suppose I have 50+ years or so more to work towards the goal of leaving this world a better place than I found it. No time to put myself out to pasture yet, there’s too much work to be done.